Ed Whitlock running in Milton Evergreen Cemetery. Photo Credit Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press, via Associated Press

 

“The distance runner is mysteriously reconciling the separations of body and mind, of pain and pleasure, of the conscious and the unconscious. He is repairing the rent, and healing the wound in his divided self. He has found a way to make the ordinary extraordinary; the commonplace unique; the everyday eternal.” ― George SheehanRunning & Being: The Total Experience

It is with deep sadness that I read of Ed Whitlock’s death. He died on March 13, just a week after his 86th birthday, and only months after he set his most recent world record, running the Toronto Marathon in 3:56:33. In the process, clocking out miles at a 9 minute per mile pace, he shattered the previous record for men over 85 by more than 28 minutes.

Whitlock was a perennial hero to all of us who run and his ability to obliterate records as he grew older was both inspiring and disconcerting. How he went about doing so well was both mysterious and painfully obvious.

I think everyone gets the inspiring aspects of his accomplishments. He is perhaps most famous for his 2:54:49 marathon at age 73. But what many forget is that over the course of a long, medaled career he set age group records at distances ranging from 800 meters to the half-marathon to the vaunted marathon. His marathon mile splits in his 80s rival my current 5k mile times. It’s deeply humbling. And perplexing. What can we learn from this extraordinary man and his accomplishments?

After college Whitlock did little running due to family, work and an Achilles tendon that was a constant bother. But when he came back into the sport in his 40s he did so in an impressive but oddly unassuming way. He had no coach. He followed no specific training program or regimen. He ate no special diet nor performed any special exercises, stretches, visualizations or took any other esoteric measures to run well.

He raced in 20-year-old shoes and jerseys that seemed to have been lost in the bottom of a closet drawer for decades. He claimed to take no special joy in running, of being in nature. He ran to compete and quickly dismissed ever having experienced a running high. He showed no pretension of exercise induced insight.

I wanted to interview him for The Age Stronger Show and was hoping, as have so many others, for some glimpse into that both ordinary and inexplicable greatness, some way of accessing it and borrowing from his learning and experience in order to infuse my own meager efforts with greater purpose and strength.

From what we can tell whatever secrets he may have possessed were open, transparent and maybe, because of their unappealing ordinariness, too quickly dismissed in a rush to easier antidotes.

We know, for example, that Whitlock was blessed with uncommon but not blinding speed. In college he ran a 4:34 mile so, while he may not have been world-class fast, he commanded much better than average velocity.

But unlike the rest of us, after a long hiatus from running, once he began again his times were extraordinary for his age and continued to improve relative to his unfortunate peers. He ran a 1:20:33 half-marathon at age 68. When he was 75 he clocked an 18:45 5k and ran 44:22 for the 10k at age 82. At age 85 he ran the mile in 7:18:55, setting yet another world record.

To put these accomplishments into perspective it’s worth remembering that in 1908 the world record for the marathon, held by American Johnny Hayes, was 2:55:19. Whitlock bested that time with a 2:52:50 when he was 69. He then set a world record of 2:54:49 at age 73. He’s still the only septuagenarian, at least as far as I know, to have run under three hours in a marathon.

At only 5 foot 7 inches and weighing less than 110 pounds Whitlock was hardly an imposing figure. With his slight built-for-speed frame he hated hills and didn’t like the wind. He loved flat courses.

To train he’d ride his stationary bike for five minutes before walking two blocks to the Milton Evergreen Cemetery where, weather and injuries permitting, he ran for two to three hours a day along lanes abutting historic tombstones. We can only wonder if those ever present reminders of mortality quickened his pace. Each loop took no more than 5 minutes. He didn’t use a stopwatch or count his laps. He just ran for his allotted time. He claimed he didn’t like the drudgery of running yet somehow in workmanlike fashion he ran there day after day slowly increasing his volume until it rivaled the mileage of professional athletes in their 20s and 30s.

We know from extensive physiological workups that he had an extraordinary constitution and that as he aged his body managed to maintain what most of us lose only too fast. His VO2 max of 54 was off the charts for someone in their 80s. His body didn’t shed muscle like his fellow runners, and aches and pains aside, he proved remarkably durable.

He also did not like doctors, which we don’t know but may have contributed to his untimely death from prostate cancer.

If there are lasting lessons from his remarkable life it may be that we all have gifts but they require us, in our own way, to make the most of them. There is no one way to age stronger.

What worked oddly enough for Whitlock would most certainly not work for me. Yet from his life I still draw inspiration. His get it done attitude towards training is motivational and reassuring. We’re reminded that even the best among us need to consistently work hard to achieve. And just knowing he was capable of such magnificent accomplishments at increasing age forces me to let go of preconceptions about what is possible, for myself, and for all of us.

Do you know of an inspiring older athlete who might be good to feature on Age Stronger?

Please let me know in the comments section.

 

 

Bob loves running the Garden of the Gods’ hills.

Bob McAndrews, who turned 77 this past November, loves to run up mountains.

He has run up 14,115-foot Pikes Peak literally hundreds of times. Often he’ll hitch-hike down and some of the stories he tells about the tourists who drove him down would make your knees shake.

He’s run the Pikes Peak Marathon and Ascent 24 times, winning his age group 11 of those times. He has set a number of age group records, one of which still stands.

Bob ran up Mount Washington, one of the toughest climbing events in running, coming in second in his age group. After the age of 60 he posted age group wins on Pikes Peak, La Luz Ascent in Albuquerque, the Vail Hill Climb and Turquoise Lake in Leadville. He’s raced internationally and successfully competed with the world’s best mountain runners.

At 77 he continues to run local races often beating the winners in age groups much younger than him.

Bob has become a mountain running legend.

I’ve known Bob for a long time, ever since my second year in college. And, over the years we’ve shared many a trail and a few races along the way. During his fastest years I shied away from training with Bob (unless he was injured or recovering from some debilitating effort) because his pace and intensity would almost inevitably take me too far out of my body’s comfort zone, leading to injury, occasionally, or more commonly, exhaustion.

But these were small prices to pay for our long talks ranging from world events to the impact of culture on running performance to the latest odd-ball running regimen currently in vogue.

Sometimes our conversations veered to personal or business problems and Bob, with insight and compassion, was a ready listener and thoughtful adviser.

The only topic I studiously avoided was racing. From our very first runs I learned, painfully, that any mention of a past or future race would send our pace skyward and I would soon be in deep oxygen debt while Bob effortlessly continued his racing saga or strategy.

What has made Bob an inspiring friend, not only for me but for a host of local and regional runners, is that he’s a real runner. He’s not just someone who runs. He’s a student of the sport. He can talk intelligently and at length about atrial fibrillation, which has slowed him down, V02 max and what you need to do to increase your lactate threshold. He’s an expert on injury and recovering, which he does spectacularly well.

It’s a real privilege to bring you our conversation on many of these topics on the inaugural edition of The Age Stronger Show.

I hope you find it as enjoyable to listen to as it was to record.

Your comments and feedback are not only welcome and important but are vital in order to make the show better.

Please take a moment (it would be a huge help) and share what you liked most about the show and if you have some encouraging suggestions for improvement, I’d like to hear those too.

If you enjoy this episode, please take a moment and give it a rating on iTunes. I know this is a big ask but it really helps to get great guests. And it also makes the show more visible to others who might like to join us in aging stronger. Thanks in advance!

Below you’ll see an outline of some of the topics we covered and some of the resources mentioned.



Show Notes & Resources

Victor Frankel, Man’s Search for Meaning

Triple Crown

History of running at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs

Atrial fibrillation

Culture, sports and running

Tarahumara runners in Mexico

Running and autoethnography

Running, aging, Joseph Campbell and the hero’s journey

Becoming a mountain runner

Dealing with the loss of speed and competitiveness

As an older athlete dealing with injuries and illness

How Bob’s training has changed as he’s gotten older

Bob’s weekly training schedule

The importance of speedwork.

The Pikes Peak Road Runner’s Winter Series, using it to get fit

Cherry Creek Sneak

Staying trim

Thoughts about mortality

The role of running in staying intellectually alive

The effect of having a physiological dependency on running

Inspiring running books by George Sheehan, Amby Burfoot and Joe Friel

Running and culture. The Kenyans, Japanese, Spanish, Italian and U.S. running

cultures.

How Japanese corporate sponsorship helps older runners

How the Pikes Peak Marathon needs to change to accommodate older runners

Peakus Interruptus, quitting at the top

Why he switched to Hoka running shoes

Why use so many different kinds of shoes, including Icebugs and Micro Spikes and how this may help avoid injury

Legacy as a runner

Bob’s running journals and how he uses them

The other dreaded “C” word

Recapturing lost fitness

Hopes for Cherry Creek Sneak and Bolder Boulder

Times he’d like to run and things that can upset the best laid plans

Running the Pikes Peak Marathon Ascent at age 80

How you are your own experiment

Training plans and milestones for upcoming races

Cross-training, strength training. How much he exercises per day

Still running at 90?

How he feels right now

Younger running friends

Enough said. Time to get out for a run